Cameron Morrison, a Richmond County native and later a Charlotte resident, rose to political prominence in North Carolina as an ally of Furnifold M. Simmons, Democratic stalwart who dominated the state’s politics in the early decades of the twentieth century. Morrison had worked with him in the late 1890s in the Democratic Party battles against Fusionists—a coalition of Populists, Republicans, and African Americans. In 1892 and 1894 Morrison worked in bitter white supremacy campaigns in Richmond County. In 1896 he lost a bid for the state Senate. From 1898 to 1900 Morrison served as Democratic county chairman and as mayor of Rockingham. He gained a reputation in southeastern and central North Carolina, in particular, for leading the “Red Shirts,” a vigilante group that intimidated black and white Populists and Republicans from voting.
By 1900 the Simmons’s wing of the party, with the help of young leaders like Morrison, had consolidated power after using the white supremacy issue, and so Simmons was elected to the U. S. Senate in 1901. That year Morrison served one term in the state Senate—his only elected office before the 1920 campaign for governor. In 1902 Morrison ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for Congress from the Seventh District. After 1904 he practiced law in Charlotte and often served as platform chair for state Democratic conventions.
In 1920 Morrison ran for governor as the candidate of the Simmons wing of the Democratic party. After laboring for the party for almost thirty years, Morrison attracted attention in the newspapers in 1916 as a possible contender for the upcoming election, so in late 1918, he declared his candidacy for the 1920 election. In July 1919, almost a year before the primary, Senator Simmons endorsed Morrison for governor. Although the Simmons organization was far from invincible, that support gave Morrison greater credibility. Other conservatives in the “Old Guard” included James O. Carr of Wilmington, Angus W. McLean, and Josiah W. Bailey. Morrison seemed poised to win easily. But his wife died suddenly in November 1919 and his campaign languished for months until its official launch in March 1920 demanded the grieving Morrison to focus on political matters.
Framing the race in terms of a conservative-progressive duel, Morrison defended his association with the Simmons organization. He attacked his chief opponent, Lieutenant Governor Max O. Gardner, as a machine candidate of the “Shelby dynasty.” Morrison also linked himself with the venerable Tar Heel leaders, Zebulon Vance and Charles Aycock, who were “old-fashioned,” instead of “dreamers” like his opponents. Morrison denied charges that like his father he had been a Republican before 1891. Otherwise, both candidates touted the traditional support for better schools and roads and a fairer tax system. Morrison won the first primary by a mere 87 votes over his nearest rival and the early front-runner, Gardner, who promptly called for a runoff. Both sides charged that machine politics dominated the second primary, which Morrison had won easily.
During the campaign, the woman suffrage issue played a key role. At the April 1920 Democratic state convention, Morrison fought endorsement of the pending Nineteenth Amendment (women’s suffrage), but lost to Gardner’s forces. Morrison, however, made his opposition to it a campaign issue by arguing that it violated states’ rights and threatened to bring black women into the electorate; those objections resonated in the more conservative eastern part of the state. Opposition to woman suffrage had helped Morrison in the runoff against Gardner and in gaining important media advocacy in larger cities, especially from his hometown paper, the Charlotte Observer.
Despite the conservative tone of his campaign (Morrison had opposed legislation regulating child labor, too), Morrison as governor had a rather progressive record, especially in the promotion of “good roads,” a project important to business progressives who sought a favorable political climate. In 1921 he pushed through the legislature a $50 million bond program, supplemented two years later with an additional $15 million, for building a modern highway network of 5,500 miles. The General Assembly created a state highway commission to guide this public works project.
Morrison also supported a $20 million, six-year effort to increase funding for North Carolina universities, schools for the hearing and visually impaired, improved care for the mentally ill, and more funds for the State Board of Health. Under his leadership the legislature also significantly increased appropriations for public schools. Although Morrison had engaged in the white supremacy campaigns of the turn of the century, he as governor sought improved race relations and particularly combated lynching. His efforts lead to the formation of the North Carolina Commission on Interracial Cooperation.
Perhaps more true to his conservative roots, Morrison aided the anti-evolution forces in the state. In particular, while on the state board of education, he orchestrated a ban of two high school texts that included evolution teachings. His action was one of the few successes during the 1920s in the national movement against Darwinism.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, opponents of the 1920 gubernatorial race had buried the hatchet, and at sixty-three, Morrison’s career was at its apogee. In 1928, when Simmons refused to endorse Al Smith, the Democratic nominee for president, Morrison replaced him as the state’s national committeeman. In 1930, after the death of Senator Lee S. Overman, Governor Max O. Gardner appointed Morrison to fill the seat. (Morrison had already announced his plans to run for that seat in 1932.) After marrying a wealthy widow, Morrison contributed generously to fellow Democrats. Governor Gardner and fellow Senator Josiah Bailey, who had defeated Simmons in 1930, supported his election to the U. S. Senate. Morrison had angered many Democrats, however, when he backed a Hoover nominee to the Federal Power Commission who had supported Hoover in the 1928 campaign.
But his political success at the national level was short-lived. In the 1932 campaign to retain his Senate seat, Morrison fell victim to Depression-era politics. Robert Reynolds, his chief opponent, with humor and demagoguery, made Morrison the perfect foil for the times by attacking his wealth. In addition, Reynolds called for repeal of prohibition while Morrison pushed for continuing it. In the runoff Reynolds’s victory was a landslide.
Morrison returned to politics as a one-term United States Congressman (1943-1945). He died in 1953 while visiting Canada.
Carl Douglas Abrams, “A Progressive-Conservative Duel: The 1920 Democratic Gubernatorial Primaries in North Carolina” North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 55, October, 1978, 421-43, Conservative Constraints: North Carolina and the New Deal (Jackson, 1992).